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Josef Koudelka / National Gallery Prague

There’s currently a major retrospective of world-renowned Czech-French photographer Josef Koudelka’s work at Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts with three-hundred and fifty photographs covering all the main areas of Koudelka’s photogenic interest. The comparatively tiny exhibition at the Trade Fair Palace consists solely of the works Koudelka selected for the Vatican’s first ever presentation at the Venice Biennale in 2013. The twelve large format photographs – nine horizontal panoramas and three vertical triptych’s – which constitute ‘DeCreation’ are all concerned with the irreversible changes to the landscape and environment wrought by man and the flow of time.

“Just as there are crimes against humanity there are crimes against the landscape. How people try to justify these crimes or what they call them is not so important. People can defend themselves but a landscape cannot” says Koudelka succinctly. But I’d also add crimes to our great European historic cities committed by greedy globalized corporate interests, and often with the equally greedy blessings of city authorities. (Against these crimes city and people are powerless.) As I walk down the street to see Koudelka’s examples of violent ‘decreation’ yet another massive, superfluous shopping centre is erupting like a giant brutal glass and plastic fist among the quiet streets of Holesovice with their varied Renaissance etc architecture/houses of often curious detail and design. This kind of casual destruction needs a Koudelka to record it.

With his intense focus on a small area Koudelka shows the abject ugliness of the modern urban environment. The first panel of the vertical triptych of photographs taken in France and the UK between 1986 and 97 shows a section of a city canal, the oily water clogged with litter, tyres, doors and doorframes. The next panel is simply the directional arrow on a wet French road pointing ahead to ‘Parc Cleir’ (TRANS) The tarmac is creased and cracked, and the arrow, the contortions of dried paint visible on its white shaft, give it an ominous, threatening quality. Whether the photographs are from western European or war-torn areas of the Middle East the urban environment has the same ugly, threatening quality in these pictures. Cheap, easily rotting building materials thoughtlessly applied, bleak architecture which makes no concessions to human form or use, militaristic design, it doesn’t take a war to bring out the ugliness of these environments, but when the shells land they become almost surreally ugly, and Koudelka’s black and white images often have the look of surreal Max Ernsts. One of the panorama photographs taken in Lebanon in 1991 is a close up of a wild tangle of thorn bush against a bullet-riddled, pitted wall, an image of compacted violence which, the thorn bush more like barbed wire than anything naturally growing, suggests how nature itself becomes infected, transformed by man’s malignity. One of the panels of the vertical triptych from Beirut shows the stump of a tree as twisted as a naked limbless old man, writhing amid a pool of hard little pointed squares of concrete.

Josef Koudelka, Izrael / Palestina, 2009 © Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

The war between the natural and industrial world’s is one of Koudelka’s concerns in these twelve photographs which form part of the Panoramas series. A good example of the brutality of the industrial’s world’s attack, or rather cynical appropriation of nature, is the panorama photograph of a coal mine or ironworks in Slovakia, taken in 1999, though it could easily be 1899 in Koudelka’s time-locationless black and white world. The slight haziness or diffuseness of the buildings and machinery suggest the filthiness of the unbreathable air, whose life-defying property is being enhanced by a pyramidal hill of coal or slag which is being poured from the buckets of an overhead rail close by. There isn’t a single human figure in sight anywhere, a reminder that this destructive, poisonous process is almost automatic, though there are men somewhere pushing buttons or pulling levers. Of course, this photo would probably be a mouth-watering image to a coal fuel lobbyist or a climate-change denier. Though their salivatory glands would surely remain dry in front of Koudelka’s panorama of strip-mining taken in Germany in 1997. There’s no need for similes here: these rows of identical humped hard ridges of rocky earth are the claw marks of a great machine, as regular as the line of scars made slowly and premeditatedly down the soft skin of a woman’s cheek. Along the bottom of the image Koudelka has each of the ridges lined up with the tracks of an individual earth-mover, each track a giant boot-print.

Yes, Industrious Man bestrides the world like a colossus – or thinks he does. But Koudelka is here to give us all a little black and white lesson in history, and a nod to English poet Percy Byshe Shelley. His photograph taken in Jordan in 2012 is a superb, even beautiful echo of the poet’s ironic hymn to man’s hubris: QUOTE. Close up in the middle of the frame fingers clutch the earth like fingers grappling for purchase at a cliff edge, but these are the remains of a colossal tumbled statue, what could be the heel of a foot or some other piece of anatomy in the background. The grasping fingers are framed within one of two remaining sets of pillars in a fallen temple, the top stone of each perilously poised to join the stony wreckage beneath. Man might be winning the war against nature, against his own roots, now, but the victories, however long-lived as we measure time will be short-lived in the millennial span or in the incalculable ages of the Earth. But even on the shorter scale Koudelka points out how fragile man’s achievements. Another image of a temple on the coast of Libya, taken in 2007, captures with disturbingly fleshy realism the natural decay – or at least much of it presumably natural – of its array of pillars which stand flaking, many with entablatures (tops) fallen off, a crumbling monument to the victory of time’s fare more effective ‘decreation.’

Josef Koudelka
National Gallery Prague
Staroměstské nám. 12
Praha 1 110 15
Until 23 September 2018

Images © Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos